Is it irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or something else?


Everyone experiences stomach pain or digestive issues from time to time. Most of the time, it’s your body’s way of responding to certain foods, medications, stress or even hormonal changes. But an estimated 10% to 15% of American adults experience ongoing abdominal discomfort and changes in bowel habits that last for more than three months.

Many of those people assume they’re experiencing the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). But according to the American College of Gastroenterology, only about 5% to 7% of those symptomatic adults actually have been diagnosed with the condition.

While IBS doesn’t lead to serious disease or permanently harm the large intestine (colon), there are other, potentially harmful, abdominal conditions with similar symptoms. Getting an accurate diagnosis ensures you’ll get the right treatment to ease your gastrointestinal distress.

Here’s what you need to know:

Who gets IBS?

IBS is the most common disease that gastroenterologists diagnose and one of the most common conditions seen by primary care providers. There are some risk factors that make you more likely to develop IBS, including:

  • Age: People younger than 50 are more likely to develop IBS.
  • Family history: Having a family member with IBS makes you more likely to have it.
  • Gender: Two out of every three people who suffer from IBS are female.

Common IBS symptoms

IBS is called a functional gastrointestinal (GI) disorder, which means it affects how the digestive system works. It causes your gut to be more sensitive and changes how the muscles in your bowel work. As a result, IBS causes symptoms such as:

  • Abdominal bloating, swelling, cramping, gas or pain
  • Constipation (infrequent stools that may be hard and dry)
  • Diarrhea (frequent loose stools)
  • Feeling that bowel movements are incomplete
  • Feeling uncomfortably full after eating a normal-sized meal
  • Frequent bathroom emergencies
  • Mucus in the stool

IBS is an ongoing condition with flare-ups that can be unpredictable and symptoms ranging from mild to severe. Its symptoms can take a toll, affecting people emotionally, socially and professionally.

Gastrointestinal symptoms unrelated to IBS

There is no specific test to diagnose IBS. Gastroenterologists use specific criteria to identify the disorder and rule out other conditions. Certain GI symptoms, often called “red flag” symptoms, may suggest that something other than IBS is the problem. Those symptoms include:

  • Abnormal blood tests or anemia
  • Blood in your stool
  • Family history of inflammatory bowel disease, colon cancer or celiac disease
  • Fever
  • New symptoms developing at age 50 or older
  • Unexplained weight loss

When “red flag” symptoms occur, your provider may perform additional tests to understand the cause.

Conditions similar to IBS

Though another disorder or disease may cause some of the same effects as IBS, the symptoms and the condition itself may be treated differently. That’s why it’s important to identify the cause of your digestive issues. Conditions whose symptoms may be mistaken for IBS include:

  • Celiac disease: While celiac disease may cause constipation, diarrhea, pain and bloating, it often also has symptoms unrelated to digestion, such as fatigue, joint pain or a rash.
  • Colon cancer: Changes in bowel habits can be a sign of color cancer, but other symptoms of cancer include rectal bleeding and weight loss, which do not indicate IBS.
  • Diverticulitis: This infection of the digestive tract causes pain, constipation or diarrhea. But it also often causes fever and rectal bleeding.
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD): IBD includes ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, and can cause diarrhea, constipation and stomach pain. Unlike IBS, IBD increases the risk of colon cancer and may cause more serious complications.
  • Lactose intolerance: Symptoms similar to IBS signs emerge after ingesting milk-based products but are not present at other times.

When to see a doctor about GI issues

If you notice changes in your bowel habits or abdominal discomfort that does not go away, it’s time to seek medical help. Your primary care provider can assess your symptoms and refer you to a specialist if necessary. In preparation for the appointment, keep a symptom diary that tracks how you’re feeling, what you eat and your bowel movements.

If you’re experiencing ongoing digestive issues, reach out to your primary care provider.